We decided it created a perfect-storm opportunity that would allow VoteVets to spend money wisely and frugally, focusing on those voters where it had maximum persuasion—cross-over men, who are most likely to vote. That would allow Tulsi to drill down on traditional progressive voters on issues of importance to them.
Phase 1: Raise Name ID
Tulsi’s biggest problem was that people didn’t know her. This is where Hannemann made a huge mistake, and we were able to capitalize. Given that she wasn’t polling well and had incredibly low name ID, Hannemann didn’t work to define her before she could define herself. This is where we pounced.
VoteVets launched an initial $125,000 buy (900 GRPs) on a TV ad that featured Tulsi’s bio and said her name five times in 30 seconds. It featured four Hawaii veterans, including one who served with Tulsi, talking about her decision to volunteer for military service, her return to public service when she got home and her experience working to help veterans in Sen. Akaka’s (D-Hawaii) office.
Hannemann then chose to chase VoteVets’ positive bio by trying to highlight his own. He spent money on a 60 second bio spot and a newspaper ad, blowing much of his war chest. What’s worse, he looked scared by doing so. This gave us a bit of public momentum at a time when Hannemann was trying to convince people that there was no race.
Phase 2: The Cavalry Arrives
A public poll released by Civil Beat after the initial ad buys wrapped showed an incredible turnaround—Tulsi had gained 45 points and the race was a dead heat. Interest in the race was significantly heightened, both locally and nationally.
It helped lead to backing from EMILY’s List and Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who raised $30,000 for Tulsi. The fundraising efforts focused on opposition to Hannemann’s conservative social views. EMILY’s List commissioned a poll, which not only backed the gains found in the Civil Beat poll, but showed us that the ad was having a messaging impact.
In their poll, conducted by Grove Insight in June, one thing really stood out: of all the messages tested, the strongest in Tulsi’s favor was that she represented a “different kind of leader” and a “spirit of service.” That mirrored our ad.
Most importantly, while a poll conducted by the Mellman Group before the spot showed that only 35 percent of likely Democratic primary voters had a favorable view of Gabbard, that increased to 59 percent by July. By this time, VoteVets had expanded its ad buy with another $99,000 in ads.
As well as she was doing, Tulsi still needed help on the outer islands. So VoteVets began sending positive, bio driven mailers to the voters it had the most sway with—males. The goal was to reinforce our TV spot and further drive positive name ID. Along with the new involvement of EMILY’s List, which focused on women across the board with their own ad, it was a one-two punch.
Phase 3: Reinforcing Negatives
Maybe not all that surprisingly, the strongest negatives tested against Hannemann in the EMILY’s List poll were that he was a career politician who had a habit of “talking stink” during his previous campaigns.
Further, voters were swayed by messaging on Hannemann’s campaign donors receiving city contracts for a rail project he championed—the same project that was driving votes in Oahu against him.
While his negatives weren’t high with voters overall, they were high among those undecided voters (36 percent)—the very people VoteVets had already decided to target. So with Gabbard surging, VoteVets latched onto those negatives sending mailers to key households in the district, which contrasted those negative views of Hannemann with the fresh approach and different kind of politics represented by Tulsi. Yet we didn’t announce the mailers until just days before the race, leaving no time for Hannemann to try to reverse the damage.
Gabbard won her primary over Hannemann by a whopping 20 points—a full 65 point swing from that first poll. Her margin of victory on the outer islands (where we focused) was virtually identical to her margin on Oahu, her original stronghold.
We view the Gabbard race as a test case for the power of VoteVets—not just in swing races, but even in races where it looks like a candidate has no shot. Bottom line: we’re well-funded and we intend to be a major player, not just in close races, but across the board in 2012 and beyond.
Jon Soltz is an Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, a 501(c)(4), which focuses on advocating for veterans.